By: Nick Aiezza, Watercraft Steward
Long Point State Park. Aurora, New York. And the breeze makes the mornings pleasantly cool. I know what to expect on any given day of work: sweatshirt in the morning, tee-shirt in the afternoon, and between that time an osprey fishing in the launch area. People will fish there, too. And it is not uncommon to see a great blue heron stalking where the shale stone beach meets the water’s edge, looking for the same exact sustenance.
I am a watercraft steward here. This is the only launch I have known in this capacity at the Finger Lakes Institute. The job responsibilities are well known by you, dear readers: talking to boaters divides the time woven into the fabric of my summer, and I spend the rest of this time absorbed in the organic flow of Long Point turning through hours, days, weeks. The red shirt uniform lets boaters know that I am important, that I am an Olympian. That I am to be feared, respected. That I am the launch commander, granting access to a selection of exceptional beings with herculean watercrafts in which they will venture out into my lake, Cayuga Lake, and swim, tube, and fish some more—whatever mortals do when they zip around shouting, “Boat life or no life!”
Then I have lunch.
Being a vegetarian, I bring the leftovers I have from dinner the previous night. Being too relaxed on most nights to bother making dinner, I bring a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich. This is my own flair in the cyclical nature of Long Point, presented with glory, cut diagonally, and dripping on the sides of my Little Playmate cooler when I remove the sandwich every day at the lunch hour of the gods: 10:00am.
But sometimes the patterns are disrupted. A man plays guitar in the restroom. Another urinates on his own truck. One of the watercraft steward coordinators will drop by and see if I need refreshments of invasive species literature or popsicles. Yes, always refresh the popsicles.
One such disruption occurred on 10 June 2018, 1:47pm, when over the noise of my rumbling stomach a family of periodic launchers at Long Point offered me a cheeseburger. And pasta salad. With pepperoni and olives in the pasta salad. As a vegetarian, as an evolved being immune to dietary subsistence on meat—and also understanding the empirical truth that olives are for veggie-lovers pizza only, and even then, merely tolerated—I plunged into an existential crisis. There, in front of me, stood a happy family. They presented the food perfectly on my table, plated it on the appropriate recycled paper materials for a proper summer cookout, and they did so with smiling mouths and eyes and their spirits were visible, like hot pavement steam picked up by wind, dispersed in apotheosis, turning blue with the life of sky.
My father had given me two pieces of guidance when it comes to eating, intelligence that I consider each time I sit down to consume energy: 1) Never eat anything bigger than your face, and 2) Well, are you hungry? It is important to acknowledge that when considering these criteria meant to critique whether eating is the appropriate measure in any given food scenario, one need not meet both points in order to eat. I may be full, sure, but if the food item is less than or equal to the weight and/or distribution of my face then consumption is fair game.
Without getting into intricate caveats of each criterion, such as potential impaction on relative mass, an interesting pocket stitched into instruction piece number two is the following: If I am not hungry at the moment, will I even have the opportunity to eat again? This is particularly poignant when considering moments of food or dollar scarcity; therefore, when food is offered to me—out of the kindness of a human heart—I will take it happily and eat it. I call these moments “Food Opportunities”.
Thus, I accepted their offering of cheeseburger and pepperoni pasta salad.
But at the core of this acceptance is a genuine appreciation of that kindness. Time went into the preparation of that food. Human time. Energy and resources were utilized, as well. A web of seemingly unrelated connections was meandered, traversed in a way that unified different socioeconomic and environmental sectors in order to lead a spirit family to my table, meeting the satisfaction of incredible odds with care, to deliver a cheeseburger and pasta salad. To me. At that exact moment in time.
This is not Indra’s Net, nor will I allow this essay to become a present moment manifesto. Forget that. No moment of Zen, here. I attacked that cheeseburger like a Viking. Sent that cow to Valhalla. Ate every piece of pepperoni and olive. Licked the plate clean. Clean! I wasn’t appreciating the moment in any Buddhist or New Age kind of way. I was savage, voracious, primal. I turned a corner in my vegetarianism that could not be unturned. This boat had no reverse drive. I would either come out on the other side, ephemeral in meat euphoria, or I would die of mad cow’s disease.
Face-first in my simultaneous first and last bite of that cheeseburger, the only cheeseburger I had had in years of vegetarianism, my body felt warm. The sunny and warm weather of the Finger Lakes region in June started right here with me, in my upper-stomach in fact, right below my sternum, and it pulsated through my veins, reverberated through flesh, which itself knocked against skin, and arose from my feeling of gratitude and thanks, and, as a result, warmth will birth throughout central and western New York, warming more and more through July, and banquet in influence and reach by the end of August.
The thing is that I had made a choice to set aside my vegetarianism, that piece of my arbitrarily constructed character, and meet their kindness with gratitude. After all, we were merely friendly acquaintances. We weren’t good friends or family. Prior to their cheeseburger offering, I had only met them once before, but they felt the desire to include me in their family’s celebration. I was brought into their circle. As evidenced by the gift of sustenance, I belonged to their collective. And although I sat by the launch and put down the cheeseburger in my own way, flawlessly, and they sat some good one-hundred yards from me, by one of the grills of my park, we were linked by the overwhelming care with which we had handled that exchange.
Their initial kindness. My gratitude in return.
We can’t ignore, dear readers, that I had broken one of my own rules—as Olympians will often do when there is a message to deliver—in order to foster the relationship developing with that family: I ate meat. The word vegetarian, in this context and how it applies to me, is a symbol, a stand-in. It is a word that I have chosen out of millions of words to represent me, to speak for me, and to express one of the many possible, and potentially conditional, elements that compose my individuality. The point is that that word “Vegetarian” isn’t real. I created it—at least I created the context for it. And I can, and should, go straight Odysseus on that symbol if that word becomes too important to me to be disregarded, and it becomes a barrier to nurturing goodwill through kindness and care.
This stewardship thing, right? Where is that in this mess? This is an essay on stewardship….
Right. It is by way of kindness, particularly meeting kindness with equal measurements of gratitude, that we arrive at this concept of stewardship. Stewardship requires an elevated level of responsibility when handling the management of energy and resources. Scaffolded within that responsibility, into our understanding of stewardship, is a degree of care.
Of cheeseburgers and pepperoni pasta salad, recognized within the exchange of kindness and gratitude, I acted out a kind of stewardship of human tradition.
Therefore, stewardship of our regional waterways may potentially begin, for some people, within this conceptual framework of gratitude as an actual, measurable commodity. Kindness and gratitude become goods, and these goods are traded with care. This isn’t capitalism. I imagine this exchange involves outlooks and actions, as there is no monetary commodity exchanged in the active preservation of natural resources. In turn, people should be expected to maneuver their “returns” to the lake with appropriate respect in their responsibilities and actions.
The point is that these lakes are incredibly kind to us. I acknowledge the western philosophical and ecological quandaries of stating that the Finger Lakes are capable of expressing kindness, much less kindness to specific entities: human beings. I’m sure that I don’t need to ask you to suspend arguments and heckling, as you are all on my side, obviously, when you acknowledge that drinking water is a nice thing. Irrigation for crops is great, too, because eating is also kind of swell. And, if you recall the beginning of this piece, people can fish directly out of the lake and eat that. People can tube, waterski, and take their living room out onto the water, straddle it between two elongated barrels called pontoons, and enjoy the company of their collectives (special thanks to Sam Beck-Andersen for that final visual).
All of that, if offered by one human being to another, would be considered pretty kind. And gratitude expressed by the recipient of such a gift would be the appropriate response. And, if handled with care, would lead to the development of a mutually beneficial relationship. And as the relationship develops it is consistently met with mutual, equal amounts of gratitude, and a prolonged responsibility to the demonstration of appreciation is developed naturally.
Thus, we arrive at an understanding of stewardship, at least as I have come to understand it, related to my capacity at the Finger Lakes Institute: As a Watercraft Steward Superhero God.
I have one final comment on all of this. Throughout the course of the entire workday, stewards set aside their Olympianhood. We demonstrate that we are human, after all. At least I am. I’m no different than boaters in regard to my appreciation and use of the lakes. Collectively, we appreciate them very very much. Sometimes—as is the case with casting away the identifier of vegetarian in order to greet and ascend mortality, join the heroic companionship of a pretty rad family, and eat a really damn good cheeseburger—these words, these fundamentally symbolic human creations, although they are wonderful in helping us construct our personalities, need to be divided cleanly and set aside: things like angler, paddle boarder, wakeboarder, competitive bowler on an alleyway of floating party boats lined up perfectly—and even steward. They are sometimes partitions in what should be a collective sense of protection. We can always pick them up and put them back together, reassembling our uniquely fashioned personhoods. And by all means, we should embody these levels of character again, as they are maintained within us after they are quieted in the name of championing this goodwill toward the waterways with which we live. This fluid, organic movement allows for one of the few forms of heroism available to us mortals: This warm display of caring for these waters: Our collective responsibility to greet their kindness with responsibility, care, gratitude.
About the Author: Nick Aiezza lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. He is also Thor’s hammer.